Edited by Francesco Leone

This large, unpublished drawing is a rare and remarkable testimony of the artistic activity of the Faenza painter Michele Sangiorgi.

On the left of the sheet three female figures are depicted around a tall stone surmounted by a bust of Antonio Canova. The first of these allegorical figures is crowning Canova’s head with a laurel wreath.

The second is carving the following words on the stone: “ALLA GLORIA / [DI] / ANTONIO CANOVA”. The third is decorating the cippus with festoons alluding to the triumph. At their feet, on the base, it is written: “VIRTUS TRIUMPH [ANS]”.

Female allegories can be identified with virtues. In fact, prostrate on the ground, enveloped by the coils of a snake, lies a naked male figure who symbolises vice.

On the right, in front of the colonnade of a classical temple adorned with statues in niches, the scene is attended by allegorical figures cloaked in the ancient style of fine arts, recognisable by the emblems of painting, sculpture and architecture that they hold in their hands.

The winged genius of the fine arts indicates the coronation of Canova’s bust to the three allegories. In the background, among the architectures of an ancient ideal city, the temple of glory stands out; a pantheon of immortality in which Canova had the right to be by virtue of his art.

Canova’s universal fame made him, even during his own lifetime, one of the most celebrated artists ever. He was the subject of a countless series of portraits, some of which created by great artists such as Andrea Appiani and Thomas Lawrence.

Furthermore, the sculptor was homage by a large number of celebratory allegorical works of various nature that exalted his public and private life, celebrating his moral qualities and his role of renovator of the once declined art of sculpture.

All these allegorical celebrations (as well as Sangiorgi’s sheet) celebrate the artist as an example of virtue, praising his ethical and moral choices and his double role of supreme artist and of a civil servant and a promoter of the arts.

The drawing here discussed can be linked to a specific event that occurred in Rome in May 1812 in the house of Giuseppe Tambroni who was then consul of the Kingdom of Italy in Civitavecchia with the right to reside in Rome. The facts are described in a letter sent on May 30, 1812 by Giovanni Battista Sartori Canova, the sculptor’s half-brother, to Pietro Giordani who was a close friend of Canova and a profound connoisseur of his art.

As soon as he returned from a trip to Bologna and Florence, Canova was invited to her home by Clotide Tambroni, Giuseppe’s wife, under the pretext of having important issues to discuss. As described by Sartori:

Yesterday morning your friend was invited by Madame Tambroni to her house, as she had important things to discuss with him. He went there; and the Lady, with great ingenuity and dissimulation, played her part, until she took him into a large hall, where more than twenty young students and pensioners of the Italian Kingdom were gathered, waiting for him, including your Palagi; and everyone applauded him, and each showed a drawing made by themselves, illustrating Canova crowned by the arts. A moment truly worthy of tenderness and tears. My brother wept. Thirty drawings were made and bequeathed to him; you will see them when you visit him. As a sign of his appreciation and gratitude, he intends to offer a them lunch here in our studio”.

The young people referred to in the letter were the students of the so-called Accademia d’Italia, created by Napoleon’s reformation of the Fine Arts Academies of the three cities that became part of the Kingdom of Italy: Milan, Venice and Bologna.

According to the new statutes, in annual shifts, the three academies held competitions whose winners benefited from a three-year “pension” to study and reside in Rome, living in Palazzo Venezia (former residence of the dismissed Venetian ambassador in Rome). The Academy was initially self-managed under the aegis of Canova and then definitively institutionalised 1812, also thanks to Canova’s direct commitment.

The sculptor became the promoter and protector of these young people, providing the academy with the necessary funding for the institution of prizes and forms of encouragement. The party for Canova at the Tambroni house was thoroughly organised to thank the sculptor for what he had done for this newborn institution.

Michele Sangiorgi, Moses found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, c. 1810. Faenza, Pinacoteca Comunale.
Fig. 1. Michele Sangiorgi, Moses found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, c. 1810. Faenza, Pinacoteca Comunale.

The Academy had an extremely innovative character due to the collegial and unconventional working method in which young people were asked to create new projects from the first day. Also, for the first time they were expressively encouraged to create a national artistic language capable of renovating secular regionalisms of Italian art. In those exciting years for the future destiny of Italian art, masters such as Francesco Hayez, Pelagio Palagi, Giovanni De Min, Tommaso Minardi and Michele Sangiorgi met in the classrooms of Palazzo Venezia.

Of the thirty drawings mentioned by Sartori in the letter to Giordani, only two, by Tommaso Minardi, are today known. They are the same size as the Sangiorgi sheet above. This lends considerable weight to the drawing not only as a work of art but also as a historical evidence.

On a stylistic, formal and executive level, the Sangiorgi sheet can be compared with a drawing of Moses found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, dating back to around 1810, today in the Pinacoteca Comunale in Faenza (fig. 1).

The latter’s dimensions are very similar to those of the present sheet. Sangiorgi’s style of drawing was inspired by both Felice Giani and Minardi, to whom he was very close during the many years he spent in Rome. Despite being a very gifted artist, Sangiorgi had a rather unfortunate career. His difficult temperament led him to a dissolute bohemian life.

Thanks to a grant from the Congregation of Charity of Faenza he was able to move to Rome in 1803, where he met his friend Tommaso Minardi, with whom he had studied in Faenza under the guidance of Giuseppe Zauli.

Together with Minardi, Agostino Comerio and Domenico Gallamini he started a sort of private academy dedicated to the study of the nude. Minardi remembers him in those years as a “young man with a great aptitude for the fine arts but very crude, superb and very vicious”.

Sangiorgi was then able to extend his stay in Rome thanks to the victory of the painting prize in the artistic competition organised by the Academy of Fine Arts of Bologna in 1813.

He died prematurely in Rome in 1822, at the age of 37. The following year the mother was forced to organise a lottery by giving away two drawings of her son to cope with the poverty in which she was living.

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